Mari Frank’s nightmare began late one night in 1996 when she received a call from the Bank of New York asking why she hadn’t made the monthly payment on her credit card. Frank didn’t have a credit card with Bank of New York. But her double – who looked nothing like her – took Frank’s background, her credit, and even some of her business cards. The impostor also bought $50,000 in clothing and luxury items, plus a Mustang convertible, and charged it to Frank’s tab. The impostor, living in Ventura County 200 miles to the north, had been enjoying the high life for more than a year before the fraud was detected. Fixing the damage required about 500 hours of Frank’s time and cost $10,000.
Identity theft ruins reputations, destroys credit ratings, and empties bank accounts, and in most cases, there is nothing anybody can do about it. Fraud artists sweep up personal information, take on the personas of victims and steal money from their accounts, or rack up bills in their names. It’s one of the fastest-growing white-collar crimes, fueled by the exponential growth of the Internet and instant credit as well as widespread use of Social Security numbers. Fraud examiners and investigators need to know the scams and the ways they can be detected.
The Victim’s Plight
Identity theft occurs when a thief uses another person’s personal identification – name, address, Social Security number, date of birth, mother’s maiden name, or other identifying information – to open new credit card accounts, take over existing accounts, obtain loans in the victim’s name, steal funds from the victim’s checking, savings or investment accounts, lease cars and apartments, or even apply for telephone service.
The victims go through a difficult and time-consuming ordeal to clear their names. They must first try to convince the lenders and the credit-reporting agencies that they are victims of identity theft. They also must deal with calls from collection agencies and endless paperwork that results from trying to expunge erroneous information and fraudulent accounts from a credit record.
Many victims of this fraud are unwittingly impersonated for years. They struggle to get their finances, jobs, and lives back in order. The thieves seldom discriminate. For instance, several cases filed with the Broward Sheriff’s Office in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., revealed a variety of victims – from the unemployed to the self-employed and from an electrician to a judge. The main offenses committed were establishing public utility accounts, and obtaining credit cards to order merchandise in the victims’ names. Identity thieves target everyone – they cross all boundaries.
In Mari Frank’s case, the crook simply crossed her own name off a mass-mailing credit application and inserted Frank’s name, Social Security number, and other personal information. The address and phone number didn’t match Frank’s, but the bank still approved a $10,000 account. Making things even easier for the impostor, the bank then passed along Frank’s “new” address to credit bureaus. They then sold her credit information to other direct marketers, who wooed the impostor with even more offers. “It was sent to her door like candy and flowers,” Frank said.